By Bill Heaney
Jackie Baillie, Scottish Labour’s deputy leader and MSP for Dumbarton, asked Scotland’s top civil servant, Leslie Evans, at a parliamentary inquiry this week about when she was made aware “of the likelihood of concerns or complaints made against the former first minister”.
Ms Evans told the Holyrood committee: “I was first aware of the issue being raised through a different route, which was Mr Salmond getting in touch with our staff about Edinburgh airport. After that I was made aware of a range of people – I didn’t know who – who were raising concerns.”
Evans also revealed the Scottish government had passed on three complaints of alleged misconduct to the police when its internal inquiry ended in August 2018. Until now it was thought only two cases were passed on to detectives; the Scottish government said later two of the complaints related to one member of staff.
Ms Evans also confirmed that one of the complainants – there were nine in all – had been shown the draft sexual harassment code before it became policy, and before she had made an official complaint.
But Ms Evans said this was normal practice, saying civil servants wanted people to share their “lived experience” and “relevant experience” when policies were being written.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was warned about allegations of misconduct against Alex Salmond in November 2017, five months earlier than previously thought, Scotland’s chief civil servant said.
Ms Evans, permanent secretary to the Scottish government, said she warned the first minister that Salmond had been calling civil servants in connection with a Sky News investigation into an alleged 2007 incident at Edinburgh airport.
Questioned under oath, Ms Evans told the inquiry “a whole range of people” inside the Scottish government had been raising concerns about alleged sexual misconduct involving ministers and former ministers.
She said they began surfacing in early November 2017 at the height of the #MeToo movement and the crisis about alleged harassment at Westminster and the Scottish parliament, and soon after John Swinney, the deputy first minister, announced a new zero-tolerance approach to sexual misconduct.
Mr Salmond sued the government over its handling of the allegations in August 2018 after its conclusions were leaked to the media, and won.
In January 2019 the government admitted in court that the inquiry was unlawful and had the “appearance of bias” because the official in charge had discussed their cases with two of the complainants before they made formal complaints. It later paid Salmond £512,000 to cover his legal expenses.
Mr Salmond has repeatedly denied any criminal misconduct, and in March this year was cleared of 14 charges of sexual misconduct, including one of attempted rape. He was not prosecuted over the alleged incident at Edinburgh airport in 2007, which he also denied.
Mr Salmond accuses former allies in the Scottish National party and Scottish government of conspiring against him, and is due to give evidence to the parliamentary inquiry this autumn.
Ms Sturgeon told the Scottish parliament in late 2018 she first learned Mr Salmond was being investigated when he told her during a meeting at her home in April 2018. The government confirmed earlier this month that she actually met one of Salmond’s closest former aides, Geoff Aberdein, in connection with the case in her ministerial office on 29 March 2018.
Questioned at Holyrood on Tuesday about the events of late 2017, when the new anti-harassment policy was being drafted, Evans said two people had told her staff were being contacted by Mr Salmond, who had quit as first minister in November 2014. Those officials were “a bit bewildered and unhappy about it”, she told the committee.
She told Alex Cole-Hamilton, a Liberal Democrat MSP, that she had raised the issue with Ms Sturgeon. “I said I was concerned, I was concerned mostly because the staff were anxious about it; I was also concerned that it could become a story,” Evans said.
“I didn’t know and I was concerned that we would be ready in whatever form that story might blow because the media was very volatile at that point in reporting on everything.”
Asked by Cole-Hamilton whether the new sexual harassment policy was “targeted [and] designed to get Alex Salmond”, she vehemently denied that was the case. “No. Absolutely not,” she said.
The Scottish Parliament’s Committee on Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints started taking evidence in public this week, with an appearance by the Permanent Secretary, Leslie Evans, which is referred to above..
The committee was established following the former First Minister Alex Salmond’s court victory over the Scottish Government in relation to the handling of the complaints against him by civil servants.
Already, some very concerning information has been disclosed to the committee, according to the Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser.
In an article in The Scotsman, Mr Fraser added: “The FDA, the trade union for senior civil servants, has stated that there have been 30 complaints by officials in five Scottish ministerial departments in the past ten years.
“This means that it has received more complaints about bullying by ministers in the Scottish Government than across all UK ministerial departments put together.
“This is an extraordinary statistic, and suggests that there has been an endemic problem within the SNP administration in the Scottish Government.
“The FDA’s Dave Penman says that these complaints refer to ‘a whole range of behaviour: shouting and bawling, unreasonable demands, calls at three in the morning’.”
Murdo Fraser MSP – “Is it conceivable that she could have been unaware of such advice to civil servants, and if she was aware, why was it covered up?”
Mr Fraser added: “In its written submission to the committee, the FDA states that ‘the culture within the former First Minister’s office and other ministerial offices in relation to bullying behaviour became a concern for us and was raised with successive Permanent Secretaries.
“‘Although action was taken and short-term improvements or apologies were made, this did not bring about an overall change in culture. Some civil servants expressed to us that they were operating in a culture of fear or were unable to speak truth unto power and discharge their duties effectively’.
“The FDA refer to these concerns dating back until 2010, but it was some seven years later before a director was appointed within the Scottish Government to champion work to tackle bullying and harassment.
“There are serious questions as to why this issue was not addressed more effectively, or expeditiously.
“Giving evidence yesterday to the Committee, Leslie Evans stated that she did not recognise that there had been ‘a culture of fear’ in the Scottish Government.
“But when I asked her directly if it was true that female civil servants were advised not to be alone in the presence of the ex-First Minister (as stated by witnesses at the Salmond trial), she refused to comment.
“It is worth remembering that this is Scotland’s most senior civil servant giving evidence to a parliamentary committee on oath.
“Her refusal to deny such a policy existed speaks volumes. If Leslie Evans won’t tell us what happened in the office of the former First Minister, then surely his loyal deputy, and successor in office, Nicola Sturgeon, has to come clean and give us the facts.
“Is it conceivable that she could have been unaware of such advice to civil servants, and if she was aware, why was it covered up?
“Everyone accepts that working at the top of government means operating in a high-pressured environment. There is not, however, any excuse at any time for bullying or inappropriate behaviour.
“It must be a real concern that it seems widely known that there were problems at the heart of the SNP Government, and yet it took so long for these to be addressed.
“While much of the media focus on the committee’s inquiry will be around the events that led to the criminal trial involving the former First Minister Alex Salmond, it is clear that the issues at the heart of the matter go well beyond this.
“Members of the Scottish Parliament have a duty of care to civil servants to ensure that they operate in a safe and secure working environment, and one where the concerns that they raise are taken seriously, and effectively addressed.
“If there have been failures to deliver this on the part of those at the top, whether ministers or civil servants, they have to be held to account for that.”
Murdo Fraser is a Scottish Conservative MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife